BWW Interview: Q&A With PS122 Gala Honorees: Annie-B Parson & Paul Lazar

This past Thursday Performance Space 122, more commonly known as PS122, held its annual gala at Jing Fong Restaurant. The event featured performances by Elephant Room Magic, and David Byrne, as well as speeches from Joseph Melillo, Executive Producer at BAM, and Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of PS122. The evening's "Shining Star" was awarded to Nicole Birmann Bloom, for her contributions to French-American cultural exchange via the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. As this celebratory gala shares focus with arts fund raising, emphasis was placed on the funding of PS122 programs for the commissioning of new works from emerging artists and the development of their new home in the East Village.
The Gala was held in honor of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the leading collaborators of Big Dance Theatre. With both themselves and PS122 standing as bastions of the American avant garde, I prompted the following questions of them to see how those in the thick of the forefront of artistic experimentation view the changes to the American theatrical landscape.

When you collaborate on a work, is the synthesis of creation so complete that the project bares no obvious indicators of either of you? Or are there aspects to each performance which resonate as Annie B's or Paul's moment.

PL: This varies from piece to piece. In a recent piece, "Goats", for example, I worked with Elizabeth Dement on her performance in a completely isolated way so that was very much my specific work. On the other hand, a much bigger hand I would hasten to say, Annie creates all of the dances. In many of the pieces though, it would be impossible to tease out who did what.

ABP: there are deep intersections where we are working with pre-existing movement scores and both have our hands all over them, or textual materials where maybe I will craft/limn down the text and Paul will find the meaning and intelligence of it and work on how to express that. Paul is also a dancer so much dance lives in his body. But the simplest binary is that I choreograph and he directs; knowing there are these blurry lines for sure.

If you have a say in the matter, what would you hope future cultures to see as the virtues of contemporary avant garde?

PL: I don't think that there is a contemporary American avant-garde. This is not meant in the least as a criticism of the alternative theatre/dance work of today. An avant-garde, as I understand it, only exists when there is a fierce divide between the mainstream culture and some other sector of the culture. Think of dada coming out of the First World War. There was a violent division within society. I think that there was an avant garde in America in the 1960's and 1970's but now our most radical artistic adventurers are far more embraced by at least a sector of the mainstream (look at upscale Soho as an example of that sector) than in prior eras. Jack Smith for example was nowhere near the radar of the New Yorker. Nowadays though, downtown theatre artists are regularly profiled in the New Yorker and the New York Times. This is not a criticism just an observation that we are not in an historical moment when an avant-garde can exist.

I would say though that future cultures might see that a virtue of contemporary experimental theatre has at times freed them from the tyranny of narrative. As scientific and spiritual inquiry lead to the discovery of many simultaneous layers of reality, the experimental theatre will ultimately prove to be a more ambitious, broad and accurate exploration of the life experience.

ABP: Structure, structure, structure, as the most expressive and subconscious tool of any culture. Look at the cave paintings and the earliest dances- they have specific structures that have meaning. What it is, is what it does.

What would you want people to see as the virtues of your work?

PL: I'm reluctant to interfere with the audiences' experience, and would tend to mimic Cunningham and Cage and let the audience have whatever experience they have. I do though have an image of myself as an audience to my own work and in the case of me as audience I would like to be disoriented in a way that does not make me resistant. So if someone experiences our work as reorienting them by disorienting them that would be a virtue.

ABP: Oh goodness. Form. Composition. Action.

Do you see your work as in tandem with the community in which it's made, or in antagonization with it?

PL: I feel a very strong, personal, in tandem connection to the community of artists and audience in which my/our work is made. It has been profoundly enriching to have worked with other artists and companies in my midst (The Wooster Group, Rich Maxwell, Young Jean Lee among others). Certain venues, PS122 being a prime example, are the nexus of the torrent of artistic energy that I have had the good fortune to live inside of. Yet there is also something to be said for the antagonization that your question refers to. There is a good deal of pain and sparks between the art and the artists. And sparks produce light.

ABP: I will have to meditate on that one!

Is there still room for definitions of art structures such as dance, theatre, performance, or are such boundaries fully outdated? If not, how could such boundaries be of use?

ABP: The Greeks danced and sang without hierarchy. That's what we are returning seeing here, a remnant of what theater was. But, there is work that is being made that lives purely in boundaried mediums for sure.I don't think that's a thing of the past, but just not as relevant at this moment. But purities resurface throughout history.

The work which you two have collaborated on often manipulates the past through very contemporary prisms. What is, in your mind, the responsibility of the contemporary perspective to the past? Is there room for moralizing, or is moralizing of history, wether politic or aesthetic, an act of arrogance?

PL: I think that great writing from prior eras dies if not fed through the sensibility of the present moment. Think how many respectable, museum - like, deadly productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov there have been? The best example of a classic that has been invigorated by contemporary artistry is the Wooster Group's piece "LSD". Although there have been many great productions of "The Crucible" (in fact there is one on Broadway right now) the definitive version of that play is "LSD". Ironically, the playwright shut that production down. I would love to talk about that too but that's be a huge other subject.

ABP: The past doesn't exist. It is disinterred by our present day mark-making. I read Tolstoy today, and I can tell you it wasn't in the past.

In America, the development of avant garde theatre is an often grueling and thankless task. Is there hope for the next generation of experimental theatre artists, and if so, where can it be found?

PL: If the past is any predictor people will continue to make work whether or not there is hope.

The question of hopefulness/hopelessness goes way past theatre. I think that the Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" should be darkened in the following way to fit our times: "may you live in entertaining times."

ABP: Well it's everywhere. It's in advertising. It's in popular entertainments. It's just very late to the party and that there is no acknowledgement where it has come from. The so-called avant garde is in the drinking water and we are the bottom feeders. There is a time lapse to be sure, but we are there.

Photo Credit: Ike Edeani

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From This Author Wesley Doucette

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